Tourists stuck in Morocco after links to Europe restricted over coronavirus

Tourists from a number of European countries were unable to leave after suspending their flights to many European countries as well as China and Algeria on Saturday. French nationals have been allowed to leave on repatriation flights, according to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Tourists were stranded in Morocco on Saturday after the kingdom announced strict border restrictions in response to the coronavirus, leaving travelers stranded at borders, ports and airports.

“We are lost!” said David, an Italian tourist who was waiting on the closed border with the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in northern Morocco.

Morocco suspended air, sea and land links with European countries and Algeria on Friday and took steps to confine citizens to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Flights to and from Algeria, Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and Italy have been suspended “until further notice”, while Sea connections for passengers and Morocco’s land borders with Ceuta and a second Spanish enclave, Melilla, have been closed.

But the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, announced Saturday that Rabat had agreed to authorize the repatriation flights of French nationals.

The first return flights to France took off earlier the same day, he said.

The closure of the only land border between Africa and the European Union at Cueta and Melilla saw the Spanish rush to leave on Thursday evening, as Moroccan day laborers hastily returned in the opposite direction.

Land borders are the busiest in summer, but traffic generally does not stop flowing. Now, although a Moroccan police roadblock blocks the road to the border with Cueta.

“Who will pay?”

David said he had tried to travel to Spain because links with Italy, the hotbed of the illness, were suspended.

After arriving in Morocco for a motorbike tour with his partner earlier this month, the 33-year-old Italian was trapped in a gas station outside Cueta.

The border of Cueta, like that of Melilla, was reopened Friday only for the Spanish. With the exception of a few travelers, the normally occupied border post near the Moroccan town of Fnideq was deserted.

At the service station, motorhomes with various European license plates were parked waiting.

“We don’t know how long it will last, nobody told us anything,” said René, a 71-year-old Frenchman speaking before Le Drian’s announcement.

“The weather is nice here, there are surely fewer cases of coronavirus in Morocco than in France,” he said.

Moroccan authorities have reported 17 cases of COVID-19, including one death. France and Spain have jointly announced more than 210 COVID-19 deaths.

On the Spanish side in Cueta, the stuck Moroccans wondered why their country would not let them return.

“If I need a hotel, who will pay?” asked a man hoping to go home.

At the port of Tangier, some 30 km to the west, containers and trucks were unloaded as usual, but the passenger terminal was closed.

The busiest port in North Africa, the establishment welcomed 568,000 foreign tourists in 2019, while 473,000 came from Cueta and Melilla, according to official figures.

Travel restrictions are causing panic in the kingdom’s tourism sector, which accounts for 10% of GDP and is a key source of foreign exchange.